“Words are inadequate, this is why we dance” – Unknown

Ah, partner dancing: the communication between two bodies to music. It transcends the individual and words.

I really dislike talking while dancing. It prevents me from hearing the music and takes me out of the moment. I don’t even really like talking before or after dancing. Those 10-second chit-chats in between dances drain my energy. I’d much rather have a deep conversation with two friends over dinner than talk about the next workshop before the next dance starts.

Even so, I’m here to encourage you to talk more. I think verbal communication is really important and underutilized, especially when it comes to negotiating consent.

When is verbal communication important?

In my opinion, the big upside of verbal communication is that it creates an opportunity to know what our partner wants before we do it.

Asking before dips and lifts

For example, I think it’s really important to get consent before dipping or lifting someone. Your partner might not be comfortable with giving you their weight. Or, they might have an injury. Sometimes, they simply might not like being dipped.

Sure, you can do a very small dip first to test the waters, and go bigger if your partner responds well. But, if you partner doesn’t want to be dipped, trying that first small dip can break the flow and the connection, and be uncomfortable.

It’s very easy to ask “hey, do you like dips?” at the beginning of the dance. Or, if you realize mid-dance you’d really like to emphasize the music with a dip, quickly ask “you okay with dips?”
Asking before uncommon intimate connections

The first person to ever use a close embrace with me asked “are you okay with close embrace?” before the dance. At the time, I was easily overwhelmed by close physical contact. This made their question a big relief because I knew what was happening. I knew it wasn’t a romantic move, and I got to learn that my partner cared about what I wanted. I loved both her question, and the dance that followed!

Some dances have close embrace as a default. In those dances, I’d argue that the close embrace question is embedded in “would you like to dance?” But some dances don’t default to close hold. In these styles, the ask is often very well received.

Most dances have a form of connection that is not usual and can feel very intimate. It can be thigh to thigh, hand to thigh, hand to face, hand to chest. It’s always safer to check in before doing it!

Fixing a dance

Asking for consent also gets rid of the complaint “that person is holding me too close, what can I do?” Currently, I hear several pieces of advice including “hold your frame and push back” and “drive your thumb in their clavicle until it hurts”. I’ve never felt satisfied by this. It creates a very combative relationship that doesn’t lead to good dances.

The problem with non-verbal communication is that it is sometimes not understood. For example, some well-intentioned leads may think “this person is pushing away because they don’t really understand close embrace. Let me press harder to create the connection”. This misunderstanding can cause a follow to feel uncomfortable and disrespected. But, with verbal communication, the follow can say something like “can we get a little more space?”.

I would also love to have more check-in about my hopes for the dance. For example:

  • I’m full of energy, I’d like a strong connection and many spins!
  • I’m in the mood for some slow, gooey dances.
  • Can we do some low-energy micro dancing?
  • I like heavy follows. Give me all the weight and momentum you want.

Creating an inclusive environment

The cherry on the cake is that you’re also creating a space that is more welcoming for folks who aren’t great at reading body language. I know a few dancers on the autism spectrum who have a hard time making eye contact or reading people’s body language. Enabling verbal communication creates a much easier space for them to navigate.

But isn’t it awkward?

When no one else is asking, it can feel awkward to ask “are you okay with dips?” You may not know how your partner will react to the question. Will they be happy, or think you’re weird?

In my experience of asking verbally in communities that don’t typically practice it, I don’t think anyone has been ever had a negative reaction or been offended by my questions. The reactions I get are usually either “That’s silly. Of course” or “Sure, thanks for asking”.

It also helps me to get over the awkwardness by thinking about it as a revolutionary act. By asking, you’re checking in with your partner and normalizing verbal communication. You’re changing the culture and allowing for other types of expression.

In a few words

Non-verbal communication is great. It allows for subtle communication and nuances. We can read each other in the moment, and have complex conversations. Dancer usually do that pretty well.

But sometimes it’s not enough. We could benefit from adding some words to our exchange – especially before dips, lifts, non standard connections. It’s also really useful when we feel like non-verbal communication isn’t working anymore. I think we could benefit from talking a bit more with our dance partners.

About the author:

Ouardane Jouannot (Dane) is a partner dancer, DJ, dance organizer, and conversation mediator based in New Haven. They like to lead and follow salsa, blues and cascadian freestyle (fusion), but love dabbling in many other dances. Dane has recently created a website to help organizer organize and promote safer spaces.

A Note from the Grapevine: This is a guest article by a dancer highly involved in the creation of safer and more inclusive dance spaces. The views presented in the article are complimentary, but not identical, to the views held by The Dancing Grapevine.